Friday, September 12, 2008 -
the day that will live in infamy here at SSQQ. This is the day
that Michael Friedberg died of a massive heart attack at his
home. This is also the day that Gary
Schweinle died in a horrible
The SSQQ Community was stunned by the news
that we lost both Michael and Gary on the very
same day. Both men died just hours before the Hurricane
A lot of people were too shaken by these
untimely deaths to even know what to say.
As our group ages, the specter of seeing our friends pass on becomes
a dark issue that lingers in the backs of our minds. However nothing
will ever prepare us for the sudden events that took from us these
two wonderful men who had so much life left in them.
When we lost our good friend Tim Green to cancer earlier this year,
I thought to myself it is never easy to see a life cut short when
the person is so darn wonderful. It never dawned
on me I would have to face this tragic reality again in the same
I am so sorry to say this is just as much true with Michael
and Gary. Both men had so much life left in
Here is an email
from our friend George Sargent about Michael:
Michael and his girlfriend Dee Medina. Ironically, this
taken at Gary Schweinle's wedding reception in July 2008
"I talked with Dee Medina yesterday
late afternoon. I could tell she was down but otherwise
doing well. Dee and Mike dated since the summer of '05. Mike
had been going to the studio for many years and was versed
at many dances. He and Dee were regular patrons of Wild
West. Mike was a math professor at the University of Houston
- Dr. Mike Friedberg. Dee said he loved hanging out with
young people, such as his students. This probably explains
why he loved the studio so much and why he looked more young
than he actually was - 69 years young.
was in town. Dee and his sister were with Mike when he
apparently had a massive heart attack. Neither they nor the
paramedics could revive him. Ironically, Mike and Dee heard
about Gary Schweinle earlier that day and were lamenting
that sad story. Mike
was loved by a lot of people."
Here is a second email. John Bear, a
colleague of Michael's at the University of Houston, sent out this
Subject: Funeral Services Set Friday
for Michael Friedberg
Date: Thu, September 18, 2008 9:47 am
Dear Natural Sciences and Mathematics Faculty and Staff,
"I regret to inform our college community of the death of
Professor Michael Friedberg, a well-respected Department of
Mathematics faculty member for 41 years. Mike, age 69, died
unexpectedly at home Friday.
Funeral services are scheduled at noon Friday at Beth Israel
Cemetery, which is within Woodland Cemetery at I-10 and Antoine
(1105 Antoine at I-10).
Because the funeral home is without air
conditioning due to the hurricane, men do not need to wear suits
to the service.
Mike is survived by a daughter, Lorraine Coats, and a sister,
Roberta Russell. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests
contributions in his memory to the Michael Friedberg Scholarship
Fund at the University of Houston. Donations may be sent to NSM
Development Office, 214 Science & Research Bldg. 1, Houston, TX
Mike joined UH in 1967, specializing in topological algebra with
an emphasis in topological semigroups. He previously was an
assistant professor at the University of Tennessee.
He earned a B.S. in mathematics in 1961 from the University of
Miami and a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 1965. He
also received an M.B.A. in 1984 from UH."
Note From Rick Archer:
Michael's time at SSQQ goes all the way back to the Nineties. I ran
across an article from the September 2000 Newsletter that said a
lot. To put things into context, Ben and Diane Liles were in a
crisis due the premature birth of their son Cole (who is now Eight
and doing Great!). Susie Merrill organized a fundraiser that Mike
Here is a brief excerpt:
"It turns out that the Intellects did not "click well" as a
team. Mike Friedberg knew many of the answers, but he was so
soft-spoken that most of the time his suggestions were ignored.
For one thing, Mike knew that "Nantucket" was a better answer as
the major fishing island of Massachusetts, but somehow "Martha's
Vineyard" was submitted. Tsk.
Another time Mike was pretty sure that "Mickey and Minnie" was
Janet Jackson's tattoo in an unmentionable area of her body, but
was overruled for "Chip and Dale". David was almost
incontrollable in his delight - anyone who watches the Disney
Channel would have gotten that answer easily. I might add the
"Playboy Channel" might have been an equally useful venue in
answering this one. (But I am just taking other people's words
for it.)" (for the complete
This excerpt from the 2000 fundraiser reminds me again just how
smart Michael was (VERY SMART) as well as how gentle and unassuming
I cannot honestly say I knew Michael well on a personal level. What
I did know was that he was very bright and also quiet and private.
He definitely didn't talk about himself very much. In fact, I was
stunned several years ago when he told me he had recently had heart
surgery! It's a good thing I was sitting down or I would have fallen
over at the news!
The conversation came about when I saw him at the studio and
realized I hadn't seen him for a while. So with my usual charm and
tact, I went over to chew him out for being a stranger. Then I asked
him what sort of stupid excuse he had for staying away so long...
"oh, I had heart surgery..."
Well, that shut me up.
From that point on, Michael was a regular again at the studio. He
particularly enjoyed coming on Wednesday nights because he loved
taking Western Cha Cha and Western Waltz from Sharon Shaw. He also
enjoyed seeing his friends as well. For example, Michael
participated in several of the Hill Country Honky-Tonk Tours
organized by Jim Colby and Marlane Kayfes.
As George Sargent mentioned earlier, Michael was dating a lovely
woman named Dee Medina for the past three years. I can honestly say
this lady was a wonderful influence in Michael's life because I have
never seen him smile so much as long as I have known him.
You see, Michael was sort of a 'grumpy gus' when I first met him. He
was a fixture in my Martian Whip class for several years. He wasn't
a negative person, but I would hardly describe him as a rah rah type
either. He was always extremely pleasant and polite, but when I
first met him I thought there was an underlying sadness about him.
That all changed when Dee came into his life. From that point on, I
actually saw him laugh and smile. I completely approved. That's what
a good woman will do for you!
In preparation for this story, I dug around for pictures. Neither of
the usual places - Cruise Trips and Halloween Parties - yielded a
single picture. That reminded me how I was constantly bugging the
poor man to participate at the studio social events more. Every year
I would ask Michael if he was going on this year's dance cruise. I
would remind him of all those single women who would love to see a
good looking guy like him on the trip.
You would think with bait like that I would get a bite. Not Michael.
Every year he came up with some stupid excuse like having to teach
his math class at the University of Houston. He actually thought his
students liked him! Imagine that (I wouldn't understand). Or maybe
it was the other way around - he liked his students. I couldn't
stand all that sentimental nonsense about 'liking students'. Humbug.
So I told him to tape a lecture just like everyone else, but he was
old-fashioned and responsible. He thought his students actually
appreciated how dependable he was and how he always came to class
like clockwork. Plus he said they actually listened to him! I
suppose they did like him a little, but I wanted him on the cruise!
I wanted to see him have fun! How could
teaching a math class be more important than dancing on the
Caribbean and playing dodge
ball with hurricanes?
Plus every year I would pick on the poor
guy about the Halloween Party. "Well, are you coming this year,
Michael?" You see, I don't think Michael ever
came to a single Halloween Party. Maybe I am wrong, but a review of
seven straight years of parties didn't reveal a single picture.
I always gave Michael a hard time.
I thought he was a handsome guy, but he had a very rugged
face. I always told Michael he could do Freddy Krueger
without the mask! Michael must
have had the same twisted sense of humor as I do because
that got a rare smile out of him. Or maybe he was just
imagining what he could do to me if he had a set of those
If forced to guess, I don't think Michael liked crowds. He
was a private man. That's just the way he was. All the
needling in the world from me didn't budge him one inch. And
lord knows I tried. Much of our rapport revolved around me
nagging him to do something and him resisting. For example,
a couple of those cruises took place in the summer. No
classes at U of H. What's your excuse this time, smart guy?
That didn't work either. But I don't think he minded me
teasing him because I am positive he knew I liked him.
And that's the truth - I liked Michael very much. I always
enjoyed seeing him. I only bugged him because I really liked
having him around. Michael made the studio a better place.
Michael was a neat guy.
I will finish my story here. I have little doubt another
anecdote will pop into my mind immediately after I publish
the story, but I think you get the point - Michael Friedberg
was a classy, thoughtful, very sensitive human being who was
an important member of our community.
Michael will certainly be missed.
September 19, 2008 - The Funeral for Michael
Written by Rick Archer
The service for Michael was
the Beth Israel Cemetery, which is within Woodland
Cemetery over in Spring Branch. We
were directed to a lovely open-air meditation area complete
with extensive seating. We had a roof, but there were
only three walls. As a result we were able to look out
onto the beautiful grounds of Woodland Cemetery during the
ceremony. It was very peaceful indeed. Whoever
designed this facility had a touch of genius about them.
In all, I estimate there were 150 people present. For
someone as quiet as Michael, he certainly managed to garner
quite a bit of love and respect! I noticed many young
people who surely were his math students over at the
University of Houston. That made me smile.
There must have been forty people from the studio who came
to wish Michael farewell. Indeed, there were so many
people to say their farewells to this man that they ran out
of parking spaces. Many of us had to park on the lawn.
The service was short and very wonderful. Michael's
Rabbi got up in front of us all to read a story about
Michael's life. I assume that the lady had interviewed
the people who were close to Michael to create such a
thorough account. In fact, the praises of Michael were
so deep and so heart-felt that I doubt this quiet, humble
man would have felt comfortable hearing such tribute.
Isn't it a shame that some people like Michael are so modest
that we have to wait till they are dead to say in public all
the nice things we think about them privately? Michael
just refused to let people make a fuss over him. He
preferred to stay in the background and watch things unfold.
Indeed, I cannot begin to tell you how amazed I was to hear
the various stories. I felt ridiculous that I had to
come to this wonderful man's funeral to learn more about him
in 20 minutes than I had been able to ascertain in ten years
at the studio! Why didn't I know this stuff when he
For example, I found out that Michael was an expert on the
Civil War. He had the ability to rattle off details
like the dates of all the major battles (so can I, but I
have to read from a book to do it). Since it turns out
my own father was also a Civil War buff, I would have loved
to ask Michael to share some of his insights and theories on
this controversial war ("and would the North still
have won if Buford had not been allowed to seize the high
ground at Gettysburg?"). It filled me with
regret to think to myself it's too late now.
I also was surprised to discover Michael loved sports.
Again, here was something he and I had in common that I
never knew about. I felt crushed to learn so much
about the man and not be able to talk to him about it!
The lady who read the story spoke of Michael's early days in
New York City and how he moved to Miami when he was young.
He was a wizard at math from the very start. He was
directed into accounting, "a practical career", but managed
to forge his own path and study math instead.
Apparently he got his doctorate at LSU and his first major
teaching position at the University of Tennessee. He
began his professorship at the University of Houston in
I didn't learn much about his marriage other than he was
able to maintain a friendship after the divorce. I did
learn he had one daughter named Lorraine who grew up here in
Houston and became an attorney. I regret that I did
not meet Lorraine, but I gathered that they were close
The Rabbi gave us marvelous insights into Michael's teaching
career. Now I had long sensed that teaching
was a passion for Michael. As you may remember from my
story above, I always liked to tease Michael about his
obvious dedication. What I did not realize is that he
was considered by his students and peers to be an amazing
professor! Obviously a colleague had shared the
inside details with the Rabbi because Michael would never
have revealed these things to me himself. I learned
that Michael was considered a "tough but very fair"
instructor. Michael produced so many outstanding
students that they dominated the math awards every year at
UH. So UH had to invent new awards just so Michael's
students couldn't win everything! That got a smile
from everyone around me.
I also learned that Michael received an "Outstanding
Professor" award in 2002. The only problem was that no
one in his family even knew about it till after the
presentation. Michael was extremely modest. He
kept this important information to himself for the longest
time. His own family didn't even know! Good
grief. This tidbit opened up the tears for me. I
just couldn't stop shaking my head as I heard one story
after another about what an amazing guy he was.
The Rabbi talked about Michael's love of dancing. She
got dozens of covert grins when she revealed that Michael
abhorred dancing with "The Geriatric Set". The man was
69 after all! But he preferred to hang out with a
younger crowd. If this hadn't been a funeral, there
would have been out and out laughter at that line.
The toughest moment not just for me, but all my friends as
well, came when the Rabbi talked about his relationship with
Dee Medina. This classy, lovely woman had been wiping
tears away throughout the service and we all felt terrible
for her. The Rabbi talked about their wonderful
times together... for example trips to Manhattan and LA and
hiking trips. The Rabbi was very impressed that
Michael had talked Dee into going camping with him at Big
Bend except there was one small condition... they had to
stay at a hotel. That sounds exactly like something my
own wife would say! Again, we had to use a lot of
discipline not to crack up at that line too.
It was pretty obvious to all of us that Michael and Dee had
a very special bond together. That was very touching
Clearly the most important revelation of all was that
Michael died with no regrets. The Rabbi said that
Michael died a happy man.
That brought out the tears again, but good tears. Rest
in Peace, Michael Friedberg. Hearing about your life
was an inspiration to all of us. It made us all proud
to have been your friend. Thank you very much for
sharing your time with us. You are a special soul
New Fellowship Dedicated To Memory of Popular
Professor Michael Friedberg
and his daughter Lorraine Coats.
A colorful and
well-respected University of Houston mathematics
professor, whose sudden death in 2008 stunned
friends and colleagues, will be remembered with a
new endowed fellowship benefitting math graduate
The Michael Friedberg Endowed Graduate Fellowship in
Mathematics will commemorate the late professor’s
passion for teaching. Friedberg died at home
unexpectedly of a heart attack in Sept. 2008 at age
69. He had been on the UH faculty for 41 years and
showed no signs of slowing down.
“He was so dedicated to teaching, I knew he would
never retire,” said Lorraine Coats, Friedberg’s
daughter. “I always assumed he would die in front of
Friedberg earned teaching excellence awards at both
the college and university level, and in recognition
of his dedication to students the fellowship will be
awarded to an outstanding graduate student who
tutors undergraduates at the math department’s
Center for Academic Support and Assessment (CASA).
Friedberg was popular with
students, but not because he gave out A’s, said Jeff Morgan,
chair of the math department.
“He set high standards and expected a lot from his students,
and they still loved him,” Morgan said. “They knew he had
their interests at heart.”
He was a native of New York City, but Friedberg was a true
Texan. He was an avid country-western dancer and loved his
cowboy boots – he was even buried in his favorite pair.
When not cutting a rug, Friedberg was busy with local Mensa
and Sierra Club groups. He was a lifelong learner with
wide-ranging interests, reading and collecting dozens of
books on Civil War history and even earning an MBA from UH
“You wouldn’t want to play trivial pursuit with him, because
he’d always win,” Coats said.
The $50,000 endowment was funded last month by a donation
from Coats and a matching gift from UH.
Memorial gifts from Friedberg’s friends and family will be
used to award the first $2,000 fellowship.
LETTERS ABOUT MIKE FRIEDBERG
Sent: Thursday, September 18, 2008 6:09 PM
To: Rick Archer
thank you for the beautiful write ups on our dear friends. i
am in tears all over again. as you said, we are too shocked
for words. it is just all too awful, i hate even trying to
think of words.
about Michael.... i always felt Michael seemed sad too. i
was never sure if it was just his natural expression/face,
or if he was really sad, but a few things he said to me over
the years made me think yes, he really was sad inside. i'm
glad Dee changed that.
Michael and i were in your thursday martian class for YEARS
before you busted us all up (you know i'll never forgive you
for that). what comes to my mind is how he always wanted to
know the mathematical explanation behind whatever move you
were teaching.... used to drive you nuts/amuse the hell out
i was so heartbroken hearing about Gary's death friday
too. i didn't realize a heart could get "more
broken", but mine did when i heard about Michael's death the
next day. i'd bet all of our hearts did.
just wanted to share, and most of my memories of Michael are
tied to martian. thanks for listening.
Sent: Thursday, September 18, 2008 6:10 PM
To: SSQQ Newsletter
Subject: Re: 2008 SSQQ Newsletter Issue Four: Regarding the
loss of our friends
Rick, Thanks for the tribute
and update on Mike and Gary. Unbelievable!
You were looking for timeframe - I recall that Mike was in
my C&W classes when I first started in 1997- 1998. I recall
that he was very analytical and
methodical about his dancing. He
had to have it explained in degrees.
Archer's Note: Fortunately Mike came to the right guy to
explain it to him. When I learned, I was just as
analytical. Imagine my surprise when I found a student
carved in my own image. Mike was just as bad as me; he
practically brought a slide rule to class!)
Sent: Friday, September 19, 2008 3:46 PM
Subject: Mike and Gary
Wow, what a shocker this newsletter was; I remember Mike in
the Whip classes you and I taught together, and I, too,
always thought he was so sad; I tried often to make him
laugh and I continued to always speak to him and dance with
him when I was there; I didn't know Gary, but what another
Thank you for letting all their friends know of their
Sent: Friday, September 19, 2008 4:02 PM
I'm sorry to hear about Mike. I do remember him well from
whip class. I used to give him a hard time too for not
staying long...if any at practice or not coming to any of
the parties. After a couple of years of knowing him he
finally told me one night (probably after I pestered him
about staying for practice) that he had some anxiety issues
around groups. He said being in class was different than
staying for practice. I didn't bug him anymore. What a sweet
man, I was always happy to see him and felt he returned
those sentiments about me.
I didn't know Gary but recognize both him and his wife from
the pictures you posted. How sad, so unexpected...wow.
I imagine that you touched many with your thoughtful
heartfelt writeup...certainly did touch me.
Sent: Sunday, December 07, 2008 3:39 PM
Subject: concerning my Father
I am Michael
Of all things, my aunt informed me today
that one of my cousins had found your website
tribute to my father. I read through it and was
very moved. I miss my father terribly-- your
recollections and those of other SSQQ members
brought both tears and smiles.
You are right: my father was a very private man.
But he was also one of the most deeply caring
people I have ever met. I have always believed
that he felt emotions very intensely, just that
he didn't let on to everyone. He was always my
voice of reason; when asked, he gave careful,
considered, and spot-on advice. But he also
understood how headstrong I can be, so he always
tempered his advice with "do what you think is
best," delivered with a smile.
I know he loved attending SSQQ classes, whether
he admitted it publicly or not. His very
attendance for so many years is proof. My father
did nothing he didn't truly want to do. And
that's one of the things that was so special
about him-- he seemed to know exactly who he was
at all times. How many people can say that?
And yes, the University was a large part of his
life. Please don't feel unique in being the
recipient of University-related excuses for
non-attendance. It took some extended
negotiations on my part and on my aunt's part to
convince him to schedule a substitute teacher so
that he could be at the hospital when his first
grandson was born on September 4th! As usual, my
father was consumed with concern for his
students. As it turns out, the feeling was quite
mutual, evidenced by the cards and letters I
have received from those very same students. I
am so glad that he did take the day off (a true
first, as I don't think he took the whole day
off when I was born!)... and he spent the last
week of his life getting to know his grandson.
I am very thankful that the SSQQ family extended
their friendship to my father over the years.
And I appreciate the donations that have been
made to the memorial scholarship fund I'm
establishing for him. Please don't think that my
lack of acknowledgement for these generous
contributions means that I am in any way
ungrateful. On the contrary, I am singularly
grateful and proud that so many people have so
many positive memories of my father. The simple
fact is that his death was so sudden and
unexpected that I have been incapable of either
processing it or acknowledging the kind thoughts
and generosity of his friends and colleagues.
I hope you will post this letter so that
everyone at SSQQ will know how glad I am that my
father had a place to go where he could be with
such caring friends. The words "thank you" are